Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air. – The Three Witches. The Tragedy of Macbeth, by Williams Shakespeare.*
Paraphrasing Macbeth, the American and British versions of “House of Cards” exist in the “borrowed robes” of the play itself. As I indicated in “House of Cards: An American Macbeth,” the American version is an overlay of the original British version, but both owe their plots and principal characters to Shakespeare’s tragedy, even down to Lady Macbeth and the three witches. The three works invite comparison.
It should also be noted that all three works owe their plots to Greek tragedy, but that topic, while tempting to explore, is beyond the scope of this column. And, a warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
It might be fair to claim that “House of Cards” bears a closer resemblance to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Third than to Macbeth. But in Richard the Third, while Richard was as ruthless in murdering his way to the English throne as Macbeth was to the Scottish throne, major elements and parallels are missing but which are present in Macbeth and “House of Cards.”
For one thing, Richard murders the legitimate heirs to the English throne and their relations, while Macbeth flails about murdering anyone or having them murdered- fellow soldiers, their families, guards – who might incriminate him for the murder of Duncan, the king of Scotland. For another, Richard plotted his murders alone, while Macbeth is encouraged in his murders by the witches, by his wife, Lady Macbeth, and by the praising flattery of his colleagues.
For another, Richard the Third is not seeking vengeance against the king for having reneged on a promise. He’s merely feeling neglected and shunned and bored with the new peace. Macbeth, on the other hand, has a bug planted in his head by the three witches who prophesize that he will be the king. It acts as a kind of Stuxnet virus that compels him to fulfill a destructive, deterministic fate. It is the witches who kindle his ambition, and that ambition is further abetted by his wife.
In “House of Cards” (the umbrella name for the British series, of which there were three parts, between 1990 and 1995) Urqhart(Ian Richardson) seeks vengeance on the newly elected prime minister who had promised him a seat in the cabinet, while Underwood(Kevin Spacey) seeks vengeance on the newly elected president who had promised him the Secretary of State post.
In “House of Cards,” there are two Lady Macbeths and a number of witches or warlocks. In the British version, Francis Urqhart’s wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) eggs him on his pursuit of the prime ministership, especially when he exhibits doubt, and frequently suggests strategies. In the American version, Claire, Francis Underwood’s wife (Robin Wright), urges her husband on, as well, and suggests solutions to their problems. In both versions, the marriages are explicitly acknowledged by the parties as partnerships in the pursuit of power and influence.
The witches? In the British version, they are represented by two other women in Urqhart’s life, a journalist, Mattie Storin (played by Susannah Harker), and Sarah Harding (played by Kitty Aldridge), Urqhart’s hired idea-developer and sounding-board. Both become his lovers, and both are murdered, after they display their untrustworthiness – “trust” is stressed by the protagonist-villains in both versions – when they learn of Urqhart’s crimes. Both inspire Urqhart to pursue his machinations and aid him in his actions -and pay a price in the end.
Another witch is Claire Carlsen (Isla Blair), with whom Urqhart does not begin an extramarital affair, but who, as his private secretary, encourages him to vanquish his enemies, and at the same time urges Urqhart’s chief nemesis, a Secretary of State who does resign from the cabinet, to vanquish Urqhart. Still another witch is the divorced wife of the King, the Lady (Erika Hoffman), who secretly advises Urqhart to oppose her ex-husband (we are left wondering why she and the King are divorced, and about her motive for wanting Urqhart to oppose him).
In the American version, the witch is Zoe Barnes, a journalist in pursuit of the “big time” in her trade. I described her previously as a pushy, ambitious, obnoxious little vixen. She also becomes Underwood’s lover, although the “love” in their relationship is mutually acerbic and mercenary. Zoe, as portrayed by Kate Mara, is oddly sexless and strikes one as too much like a teenager working for a high school newspaper. One almost expects she will appear in the next scene in a cheerleader’s outfit waving pom-poms. Mara is very effective in the role, but only in the sense that she and Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, are convincingly black-hearted enough to be drawn to each other in a reciprocal contempt for each other and for their professions. But, then, that is the nature of the relationships between the Urqharts and the Underwoods, as well.
The warlocks? These are Roger O’Neill (Miles Anderson), a publicist for Urqhart, and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a Pennsylvania congressman. While they aid Urqhart and Underwood (willingly or unknowingly) in their respective plots, both are addicted to dope and liquor, and become loose cannons who cannot be trusted by Urqhart and Underwood to stay in tow. Urqhart disposes of O’Neil by mixing rat poison in his cocaine; Underwood gets Russo drunk and disposes of him with carbon monoxide in a locked garage. They were more like Macbeth’s protégé Banquo than advisors or prophesiers. And they, too, get killed.
Lady Macbeth explains to her husband the method he must employ to disarm his future victim, King Duncan, a method mastered by Underwood and Urqhart:
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.**
Macbeth, already primed to do something to fulfill the witches’ prophesies, but still reluctant to discuss it, simply replies, “We will speak further.” He is “bewitched” by the idea that he could become king. Later, in another soliloquy, he agonizes over the necessity of needing to commit the murder, and, after having committed it, about its possible consequences.
Here we leave Macbeth behind. There are similarities in the material between the two versions of “House of Cards” that help to define the characters of the protagonist-villains. Frank Underwood, in the opening scene of the first episode, breaks the neck of a dog injured by a hit-and-run driver, and delivers a brief soliloquy on the uselessness of pain. He emphasizes that his was not a mercy killing, but something he enjoyed doing. He lies to the owner, saying that the dog was killed by the driver. In his basement retreat, he plays violent video games to “relax.” Throughout the rest of the series, he comments to the audience about putting useless people out of his way or out of their misery. Urqhart, on the other hand, shoots birds on his estate, shoots one of his dogs that has become too old to participate in the hunt, and delivers an aside to the audience about uselessness.
In another telling scene in the American version, Underwood comes out of a government office building and sees that the police have handcuffed a mad man to a pole. The police tell him that the man, a disheveled maniac who is still yelling, that he tried to enter the building while taking his ragged clothes off. Underwood goes up to the man, stoops down, and tells him that “no one is listening,” implying that it was useless to protest any perceived injustice. His purpose in saying that to the man was not to calm him down, but to kill him. The maniac is left speechless.
In their sexual relations – I hesitate to call them “romantic,” for they are anything but that – Underwood and Urqhart adopt unhealthy views of their lovers, that is, faux incestuous views. Urqhart, about forty years her senior and childless, insists that Mattie call him “Daddy.” Underwood, about twenty-five years her senior, at one point regards Zoe as a daughter, and in an aside while Zoe is calling her father for Father’s Day, with a smirk emphasizes that point to the audience. Zoe seems to sense that this is the root of their sexual relationship, and, whore that she is, doesn’t seem to mind it.
Other than a few pecks on the cheek and lips, and an occasional comforting touch, we see no passion between the Underwoods and the Urqharts. When they are smiling together, it is not an affirmation of the happiness of their marriages, but a celebration that they are getting away with something that they’ve pulled on everyone.
There is a significant difference between Macbeth and “House of Cards.” Macbeth, before and after he has murdered King Duncan, expresses qualms about the act. Lady Macbeth chides him for having second thoughts, before and after the crime. Urqhart is sometimes bothered by his having thrown Mattie off the roof garden of the Houses of Parliament, but right until the end of the trilogy is unrepentant. Underwood isn’t bothered at all, and, as Urqhart does, he speaks to the audience as though it were an accomplice to the crimes.
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies in remorse. Not so Claire and Elizabeth. They’re committed. As Barton Keyes put it about a pair of murderers in Double Indemnity:
Whether it’s love or hate doesn’t matter; they can’t keep away from each other. They may think it’s twice as safe because there’s two of them, but it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous. They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.
The American version of the Netflix series is literally “how to” do precisely what Chris Horner, in an Accuracy in Media interview, describes in the way of private email accounts and secret messaging and code names and the like. It is a revealing interview about Obama’s “transparent” administration, from the private emails of the EPA to Fast and Furious to the Benghazi cover-up. If nothing else, “House of Cards” is an education in corruption and power-grabbing.
Although both series share the same premises in the way of how to game the political establishment, the British version relies less on technology than does the American. The villains and characters in the British version rely more on acting and direction than on technology, whereas much of the plot of Kevin Spacey’s version is driven by instant access to people and information and humungous databases. For example, there are few scenes in which Zoe isn’t staring at her Android or Ipad, communicating frantically with her thumbs (I couldn’t catch the brand name of her devices). Mac Laptops are prominently displayed throughout the Spacey “House of Cards.” So much for “non-commercial” promotions.
The Spacey version is a capital lesson in non-transparency. You can see the serpents lurking beneath the orchids. As General Sternwood remarked about orchids in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in literary agreement with the quotation that precedes this column:
Nasty things. That flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has a rotten sweetness of corruption.
Only there is no sweetness in “House of Cards.” Only smiling serpents slithering in the foul fog of power politics.
*Act 1, Scene 1. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988. Eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.
**Act 1, Scene 5, ibid.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Edward Cline is the author of the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and also of Whisper the Guns and First Prize. His essays, books reviews, and other nonfiction have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other periodicals. He is a frequent contributor to Rule of Reason and The Dougout.